By DOUG FERGUSON, AP Golf Writer
AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) — The pressure was even more than Hideki Matsuyama could have imagined when he stood on the first tee Sunday at Augusta National. So was the emotion when he walked off the 18th green as the first Masters champion from golf-mad Japan.
His arms securely inside the sleeves of the green jacket, he thrust them in the air.
Ten years after he made a sterling debut as the best amateur at the Masters, the 29-year-old Matsuyama claimed the ultimate prize and took his place in history.
Whether he’s Japan’s greatest player is not his concern.
“However, I’m the first to win a major,” he said through his interpreter. “And if that’s the bar, then I’ve set it.”
Staked to a four-shot lead, the nerves stayed with Matsuyama from the time he hit his opening tee shot into the trees to back-to-back birdies that led to a six-shot lead to a few nervous moments at the end when Xander Schauffele made a late run at him.
Only when he belted his drive down the 18th fairway and twirled the club in his hands could he feel this victory was in hand. He played so well for so long that three bogeys over the last four holes made this Masters look closer than it was.
He closed with a 1-over 73 for a one-shot victory over Masters rookie Will Zalatoris (70).
Schauffele ran off four straight birdies to get within two shots with three holes to play, only to hit 8-iron into the water on the par-3 16th for a triple bogey that ended his hopes. He shot a 72 with a triple bogey and a double bogey on his card and tied for third with Jordan Spieth (70).
“Man, he was something else. He played like a winner needs to play,” Schauffele said. “Sixteen, I really would have loved to have put more pressure on him there, but basically gave him the tournament at that point.”
Then his thoughts turned to the significance of what Matsuyama achieved. Schauffele’s mother was raised in Japan and his grandparents still live there.
“No one really wants to talk about how much pressure is on him,” Schauffele said. “You look at the media that follows him. You look at what he’s done in his career. He’s a top-ranked player with a ton of pressure on him, and that’s the hardest way to play. He’s able to do it.”
And he did it.
The emotion for a player who says so little was never more evident. Moments before Dustin Johnson helped him into the green jacket, Matsuyama needed no interpreter in Butler Cabin when he said in English, “I’m really happy.”
So masterful was this performance that Matsuyama stretched his lead to six shots on the back nine until a few moments of drama. With a four-shot lead, he went for the green in two on the par-5 15th and it bounded hard off the back slope and into the pond on the 16th hole.
Matsuyama did well to walk away with bogey, and with Schauffele making a fourth straight birdie, the lead was down to two shots. And then it was over.
Schauffele was in the water. Matsuyama made a safe par on the 17th and ripped one down the middle of the 18th fairway. He made bogey from the bunker to finish at 10-under 278, soaking in the moment with a few thousand spectators on their feet to celebrate a career-changing moment.
Spieth has competed in Japan and has played alongside Matsuyama on his home turf. He could relate to having a four-shot lead, which Spieth had when he won the Masters in 2015. He can’t relate to the expectations of an entire country.
“He’s got a lot of pressure on himself,” Spieth said. “I remember the feeling on a four-shot lead, and he’s got Japan on his back and maybe Asia on his back. I can’t imagine how that was trying to sleep on that, even with somebody who’s had so much success.”
Matsuyama won for the 15th time worldwide, and it was his sixth PGA Tour title. He had gone 93 tournaments without winning, the longest drought for a Masters champion since 1987, and went to No. 14 in the world.
He becomes the second man from an Asian country to win a major. Y.E. Yang of South Korea won the 2009 PGA Championship at Hazeltine over Tiger Woods.
Matsuyama won in Japan as an amateur, and four times after he graduated college and turned pro in 2013.
His first PGA Tour victory was at the Memorial in 2014, prompting tournament host Jack Nicklaus to say, “I think you’ve just seen the start of what’s going to be truly one of your world’s great players over the next 10 to 15 years.”
That moment came Sunday.
Matsuyama is not big on emotion, and he speaks even less even when cornered after every round by the large contingent of Japanese media.
Most of the media was absent this year due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, and Matsuyama had said on the eve of the final round that it has been a lot less stress.
There was plenty on the golf course, right from the start.
“I felt really good going to the first tee, until I stood on the first tee, and then it hit me that I’m in the last group of the Masters Tournament and I’m the leader by four strokes. And then I was really nervous,” he said. “But I caught myself. And the plan today was just go out and do my best for 18 holes. And so that was my thought throughout day, just keep doing my best.”
Matsuyama sent his opening tee shot into the trees right of the first fairway. He punched it under the trees from the pine straw, hit a soft pitch that rolled down the slope away from the pin and was happy to leave with bogey. Two groups ahead of him, Zalatoris opened with two straight birdies.
Just like that, the lead was down to one. Matsuyama quickly restored his cushion by making it through the toughest stretch on the front nine as everyone around him dropped shots. He had a five-shot lead at he turn, and Schauffele was the only one who had a serious chance at the end.
He is the first winner with a final round over par since Trevor Immelman in 2008. No matter. Matsuyama is the Masters champion, a major that defines his elite status in the game and gives Japan the biggest week it has ever had in April.
It started a week ago Saturday when Tsubasa Kajitani won the second Augusta National Women’s Amateur. Matsuyama wasn’t around to see it, but he was well aware of it. All he wanted was to follow her path and made Japan proud.
His play spoke volumes. So did his reaction.